This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.
In the years leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the majority of Americans had no interest in war. The carnage of World War I was
still fresh on their minds, and many in America argued for a position
of isolationism. But feelings dramatically shifted on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese took America by surprise.
Lifelong aviation enthusiast Dick Cole graduated from Kelly Field in July of 1941 and was assigned to the 17th Bombardment Group in Pendleton, Oregon. He describes learning about the attack on Pearl Harbor during a stop his squadron made at March Field in California:
"When we arrived in March Field, why, Colonel [Otto] Peck gave everybody what they called open post, which meant that we could go anyplace we wanted to go as long as we were back by midnight on Sunday night. Everybody went to Hollywood, and we were in the Hollywood Plaza Hotel. When I heard about it, I was up and getting dressed, and the phone rang. And I had to be down in the lobby at ten o'clock to get a bus to go back to March."
After the attack, Cole's squadron began patrolling off the West Coast for Japanese submarines:
"They worked out a grid map, and we would fly so far out and then turn around and come back and go back and forth. Nobody in our group—or squadron—ever saw anything. Well, we saw a lot of whales. [Everett W.] "Brick" Holstrom, who was one of the raiders, was in the 95th Squadron—they were up at Everett, Washington—he sank a sub in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But the rest of ours was just looking at the water. (both laugh)"
George C. McDowell, who worked in army air force ordnance during WWII, was stationed at Bowman Field in Louisville, Kentucky, in late 1941. He recalls when he heard about the bombing:
"I remember we had a—there was a big party the night—sixth of December there. About nine o'clock in the morning, I got a phone call, said—my wife was going down to visit her folks down at Fort Sill. So I got a phone call and says, ‘Have you turned your radio on?' And I said no. They said, ‘Well, turn it on.' (laughs) And about noon, why, got a call from base to come out there. And Junius Wallace Jones had the whole staff out there. He says—I remember he walked out and says, ‘Gentlemen, today we go to work.' (both laugh)"
McDowell explains his first impressions about the news:
"I wasn't quite comprehending what it—what had—they didn't say all the battleships had been sunk or anything like that. They just said the Japs had struck and were attacking."
On December 8, President Roosevelt delivered his famous Day of Infamy Speech to Congress, as well as to the American public over the airwaves, and less than an hour later Congress declared war on Japan. Though devastating, the attack did not bring about the widespread, long-term damage to the U.S. Navy that the Japanese had hoped for. And most importantly, the Japanese unintentionally united the American people like no politician could have done.
Living Stories is heard every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. For more information about this program or the Institute for Oral History, visit us at baylor.edu/livingstories.
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